Sierra Barter Wants to Get Connected

The Lady Project cofounder is linking up women around the country.

Photography by Rupert Whiteley

(page 1 of 2)

Many people may think they have a pretty cool party trick, making a coin disappear or picking a card out of a deck or drinking the most beer with a ping pong ball in it.

But Sierra Barter’s is a beauty. It’s her bellybutton or, to be more precise, the lack of one.

Barter, twenty-nine, cofounded the Lady Project in Providence in 2011, a nonprofit of networking, mentoring and socializing for women by women. But when she came into the world in the tiny town of Hubertus, Wisconsin, a Milwaukee suburb of 5,300, the odds were severely stacked against her.

“I was born with omphalocele,” says the vegetarian Barter, munching a salad one day at Rosalina in downtown Providence not far from Johnson and Wales University, where she works as its social media coordinator. “It happens during gestation when your insides don’t fully form. All my insides were outside my body in a small sack when I was born. For the first three months of my life, I was in intensive care.”

She was baptized in the hospital, had last rites administered and was, she laughs now, “a hot mess,” enduring corrective surgeries that left her without a bellybutton.

“We thought she was going to die,” says her mother, Lisa Majkrzak, a photographer in Hubertus, of the rare condition. “It was a rollercoaster for the first three months of her life.”

And it wasn’t over. As a small and frail child with asthma, Barter spent a lot of time in the hospital battling pneumonia. Late in her teens, she was put into a medically induced coma.

“Dylan called my room,” Barter jokes about the oldest of her three brothers who claimed dibs on her bedroom at home if she didn’t make it. “I didn’t understand the severity of it. I just remember being mad because I was missing a concert I wanted to go to. You know, seventeen-year-old priorities.”

“She almost died then,” Majkrzak says. “She’s gone through a lot. Those issues were something she had to accept and fight through. And she did. It’s really made her stronger.”

That may be putting it mildly. After graduating from Johnson and Wales in 2009 with a degree in advertising and marketing communications, she befriended Julie Sygiel and the two young women soon brainstormed forming a women’s group. The Lady Project was born in 2011, with its first event held in February 2012 at the Dorrance restaurant in Providence where Barter says “a lot of women we didn’t know came, not just friends who had to show up.”

Since then, the Lady Project has spread to nine other cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Boulder, Nashua, New Haven, Washington, D.C., San Diego and Seattle. There are at least five more forming this spring, a few more in the fall and who knows how many after that.

Barter is slamming busy keeping up with all of it. She works full time at her alma mater, waits tables at Trinity Brewhouse, and puts in at least forty hours a week of her remaining spare time on the Lady Project, which has a tiny office space on Chestnut Street. But she mostly works out of her tiny apartment in the Summit neighborhood on Providence’s East Side that she shares with two tiny dachshund-mix dogs, Dee Dee, a shelter dog, and Lucy.

That’s just the way she lives her life, one that last year got her lauded as one of the country’s fifty hometown heroes by Glamour magazine. “I’m a fast-moving person,” she says with decided understatement.

And one without a bellybutton, which still delights her to talk about.

“It’s a fun party trick,” she says, laughing. “In college, I’d joke that when I got drunk it would go away.”

I had not yet met Barter before attending the Lady Project’s annual holiday gift guide launch in the cavernous Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, the event held inside Chifferobe Atelier, a female-owned business.

There are at least fifty women here milling about before the program commences, but Barter is not hard to single out. With shoulder-length chestnut hair and dark eyes, she moves smoothly, working the room, chatting with women, and sliding fluidly from one to the next in a seamless, unforced manner.

She spots me, the only uncomfortable-looking male in the mix, and brightens, walking over to extend a hand and a smile.

“So glad you made it,” she says, adding in an earnest, mother-hen sort of way. “I want you to feel welcome, talk to people, have a drink, get something to eat.”

We chat about tonight’s program, which will include a “three-on-three” segment, three women of varying backgrounds talking about their passion for three minutes each, the self-doubt each had crafting their careers and how they overcame it. Barter then moves along, welcoming others before the program begins, saying of it and the Lady Project in general, “This is what happens when amazing women get together and do cool things.”

Membership has grown rapidly in the Providence Lady Project, which now has around 550 members (and 1,200 total in all the chapters), all women or those who “identify as a woman,” according to its website. “We want to be as inclusive as possible. We have heard people say they’re glad we have that wording,” she says.

Has she ever gotten pushback from men who might feel excluded or that the Lady Project is gender elite? She laughs.

“I’ve seen guys joking on Twitter that they’re going to start a ‘Man Project,’ ” she says. “Good luck. It’s a lot of work and you don’t get paid.”

The Lady Project is an all-volunteer operation, running close to the bone on donations, sales of Lady Project merchandise and annual memberships that run from $25 to $50.

Three team members, including Barter, receive small monthly stipends.

“The other day, I bought us a printer,” she says dryly.

The Lady Project’s main thrust is getting women together to discuss issues of concern, network, support each other and have fun. It hosts two or three events a month, in addition to its signature event, a daylong summit, now in its fourth year. The monthly events cover a range of topics, which have included self defense, finding a mentor, negotiating a salary and a yoga class, all of it, Barter says, “to get people trying something new.”

The Lady Project also partners with local charities, raising money and goods for the work they do, including Sojourner House, Girls on the Run, the Girl Scouts and Amenity Aid.

The annual summit sells out well in advance, and draws a maximum of 300 women from all over the country, with past keynote power speakers like Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan, Meredith Walker, cofounder of Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and Tammy Tibbetts, founder of She’s the First. This year’s speakers included Ruma Bose, serial entrepreneur and president of the Chobani Foundation, Ann Shoket, former editor-in-chief of Seventeen magazine, and image consultant Elaine Pouliot.

The summit also hosts popular panel discussions and worships on things like “Negotiating While Female,” “Five Tips for Creating Your Own Happiness” and “How to Make Your Words Stand Out in a Sea of Saturation,” led by local women such as Kristen Adamo, vice president of marketing and communications for the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Kaitlyn Roberts, founder of Easy Entertaining in Providence.

“It’s great, women come from all over, L.A., Austin, Seattle, the New England area,” Barter says. “That’s the great thing about Providence; it’s easy to get here.”

Though she’s only lived in the city for eleven years, she thinks like a native. Asked why she doesn’t host the summit in a big place like New York, she scoffs at the idea.

“I can literally call a guy named Tony and get linens for a third of the price here,” she says. “And I love showing off Providence.”

She also does the Rhode Island thing of giving directions “based on where the Dunkin’ used to be,” she says, and will hand deliver merchandise when locals order online.

“I feel bad making people pay shipping. I figure hey, I’m close, I’ll just drop it off,” she says.

She relies heavily on her core group of fifteen team volunteers and six interns, plus chapter city managers and their teams.

“It’s the most incredible team,” she says. “I can’t wait to pay them all one day.”

As a senior at Hartford Union High School in Wisconsin, neither Providence nor Johnson and Wales were on Barter’s radar. But it’s the only school she applied to, based on the recommendation of a friend who went there.

“I wouldn’t advise kids to do what I did, apply to only one college,” she says. “I had two requirements for a school: It had to be outside Wisconsin, and it had to have DECA, which I was involved with in high school.” (DECA, aka Distributive Education Clubs of America, focuses on careers in marketing, hospitality and finance.)

She did decently in high school, but a guidance counselor told her she wasn’t college material. She applied to Johnson and Wales and got in, earning marketing and DECA scholarships in the process.

“When I get my master’s degree,” she says with a laugh, “I’m sending a copy to that guidance counselor.”

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